Connecting state and local government leaders
In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that the lawmakers could not run for another term on this year’s ballot. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
It’s Saturday, Feb. 3, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There is plenty to keep tabs on with Georgia’s plan to expand cash bail, a Tesla battery system replacing Hawaii’s very last coal power plant, and Utah’s governor signing bills opposing “federal overreach” and banning DEI programs in public entities.
But first we start in Oregon, where a legal solution to block legislators from effectively bringing their chamber’s work to a standstill passed a crucial test Thursday.
The state Supreme Court ruled that legislators who obstructed business in the state Senate last year cannot immediately run for reelection, a decision that will affect nearly all of the chamber’s Republicans.
Legislative walkouts have provided plenty of drama—if not always results—in state capitols over the years, when lawmakers in minority parties have few options to stop controversial proposals.
Texas Democrats left the Lone Star State for Washington, D.C., in 2021 to block a bill to curb voting rights, and they fled the state in previous redistricting fights. Out-matched Democrats from both Indiana and Wisconsin gathered in Illinois in 2011 in order to block anti-union proposals in their home states.
But in Oregon, it has been Republicans who have staged walkouts recently. In fact, they have brought business to a halt each of the last four years in attempts to stymie Democratic majorities. Labor unions grew so fed up with the tactic that they backed a ballot measure in 2022 to punish lawmakers who missed 10 or more legislative days without an excuse by not letting them run in the next election.
That threat wasn’t enough to stop 10 Republican state senators last year from participating in a six-week standoff, the longest walkout in state history. They returned only after extracting concessions on Democratic bills dealing with abortion, transgender health care and gun control.
Two of the GOP lawmakers who walked out decided not to run for reelection. Of the remaining eight, four were up for reelection in 2024, while the remaining four were up again in 2026.
The four Republicans who wanted to run this year fought to remain on the ballot. They said the wording of the measure made it clear that the punishment would not apply until their next term. The law says truant legislators would be ineligible to run again “for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.” The GOP legislators pointed out that their current terms are not completed until January, after this year’s elections.
But the Oregon high court said that interpretation would run counter to the voters’ intent and the ballot descriptions when they passed the law.
“Because the text is capable of supporting the [secretary of state’s] interpretation, and considering the clear import of the ballot title and explanatory statement in this case, we agree with the secretary that voters would have understood the amendment to mean that a legislator with 10 or more unexcused absences during a legislative session would be disqualified from holding legislative office during the immediate next term, rather than the term after that,” the court said in an unanimous decision.
The ruling isn’t quite the last word on the matter. Several of the affected lawmakers filed a federal lawsuit claiming that they were being “punished for exercising their First Amendment rights and their punishments snowballed into additional constitutional violations.” They said they were marked “unexcused” even when attending religious services, and they had no way of appealing the decisions of Senate President Rob Wagner on what absences were excused or unexcused. But a federal judge in that case denied their request for a preliminary injunction in December.
With the legal options dwindling and a deadline for election paperwork looming, Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp said he would not seek reelection this year. “We had our day in court, we obviously lost, and I think all the legislators would do it again, if they had to do it over,” Knopp said, according to the Oregon Capital Chronicle. “Pursuing the federal legal action isn’t going to provide any relief for the ’24 election cycle.”
Ironically, though, the decision could give the Republicans an opportunity to block business in the state Senate again this year. “Our members literally have no reason to show up, and so in order for them to show up, they’re going to want to see that they’re going to be able to make a difference,” Knopp said before the high court ruling.
Most of the Republicans who are disqualified from running next year come from solidly GOP districts, so the partisan breakdown of the 30-member chamber is unlikely to change much as a result of the decision. But Knopp’s central Oregon district could be up for grabs. If Democrats win it without losing any other seats, they would have the 18-member supermajority they need to pass new taxes and fees without Republican votes.
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News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs and Notable Events
- CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Georgia set to expand cash bail. A sweeping state bill expanding the cash bail system and criminalizing charitable bail organizations passed in the Georgia Senate by a 30-17 margin Thursday. The Georgia House of Representatives is expected to pass the bill Tuesday, after which it will head to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature. Critics warn that the bill will cause significant harm in justice impacted communities. “You don’t have to be an abolitionist or someone who thinks cash bail should be eliminated to be opposed to this bill,” Sen. Josh McLaurin (D-14) said on the Senate Floor Thursday afternoon. The bill adds 30 additional charges that are ineligible for unsecured judicial releases, popularly known as signature bonds. The list includes charges commonly associated with protesting, like unlawful assembly and obstruction of a law enforcement officer, and street racing, like reckless stunt driving and promoting drag races. Additionally, the bill only allows elected and appointed judges to set bond in Georgia. The changes expanding cash bail were not unexpected based on previous iterations, but the last-minute addition to the final language of the bill significantly hindering the ability of individuals and organizations to pay bail on behalf of jailed people in the state came as a surprise.
- INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS: Utah governor signs bill opposing “federal overreach.” Gov. Spencer Cox wasted no time signing a bill into law that gives the state an avenue to not comply with directives from the federal government. “Balancing power between state and federal sovereignty is an essential part of our constitutional system,” Cox said in a prepared statement. “This legislation gives us another way to push back on federal overreach and maintain that balance.” The bill allows lawmakers to reject any action from the federal government they view as unconstitutional, unless a court rules otherwise. A “federal directive” includes anything from an executive order from the president, to a rule or policy enacted by a federal agency, or even a statute passed by Congress.
- DRUGS: First state-regulated drug use site in U.S. to open this summer. The first state-regulated overdose prevention center in the country is one step closer to opening in Rhode Island, and it could be as soon as this summer. Two Rhode Island nonprofits announced Wednesday that they’ve secured a location. These centers are also known as safe injection sites or harm reduction centers. Rhode Island was the first state to legalize safe injection sites in 2021, but two have since opened in New York. Safe injection sites have been around for decades in countries like Canada and Switzerland.
- EDUCATION: California agrees to spend $2B on kids hurt by remote learning. In the fall of 2020, during the debate over pandemic school closures, a lawsuit in California made a serious claim: The state had failed its constitutional obligation to provide an equal education to lower-income, Black and Hispanic students who had less access to online learning. Now, in a settlement announced on Thursday, the state has agreed to use at least $2 billion meant for pandemic recovery to help those students who are still trying to catch up. The settlement includes guardrails for how the money can be used. It will require school districts to identify and assess students who need the most support and use the money for interventions backed by evidence. Research shows that certain interventions, such as frequent, small group tutoring and extra learning time on school breaks, can produce significant gains.
- DEI: Utah governor signs anti-DEI bill into law. As expected, Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday signed a bill to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs in public entities. The bill, which the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature approved last week along party lines, will take effect on July 1. It bans DEI statements and turns DEI offices into “student success centers” in Utah public colleges and other government agencies in order to make services available for all, rather than focusing on minorities. It also prohibits “discriminatory practices,” which includes maintaining policies, programs, offices or trainings that promote differential treatment of an individual based on their race, color, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, religion or gender identity.
- WORKFORCE: Teacher strike in Massachusetts reaches 10th day. Public school students in one of the largest cities in Massachusetts have now been out of school for two weeks as a teacher strike that began on Jan. 19 continues to drag on. The striking teachers and school committee are still an estimated $15 million apart in contract negotiations—the bulk of which is raises for teachers and paraprofessionals. Parents have filed lawsuits to try to get their children back in class, and Gov. Maura Healey got involved Thursday, asking the Department of Labor Relations to file a request asking the court to hold twice daily status conferences between the parties. If an agreement is not reached soon, the filing requests that the court turn to binding arbitration.
- CLIMATE CHANGE: Hawaii’s last remaining coal power plant kaput. The Aloha State is saying goodbye to polluting power and hello to an opportunity for its sunny skies to provide more than ripe pineapples and golden tans. A Tesla Megapack battery system replacing Hawaii’s very last coal power plant is officially live. “This is a landmark milestone in the transition to clean energy,” said Brandon Keefe, executive chairman of Plus Power, the company that operates the project. “It’s the first time a battery has been used by a major utility to balance the grid.” Hawaii has the highest solar capacity deployed per capita. But the sun doesn’t shine 24/7, so it still needs energy storage. The state intends to run off 100% green energy by 2045, and projects like this battery system will help both.
- IMMIGRATION: Pilot launched to help migrants find long-term housing. Gov. Maura Healey’s administration is in the process of inking contracts with resettlement agencies in Massachusetts to launch a one-year pilot program that could help up to 400 migrant families already in shelter find long-term housing and employment. Resettlement agency leaders said the pilot program would be one of the first of its kind. The program would come as the Healey administration is looking to ease pressure on emergency assistance shelters, which have filled to capacity over the past year following an influx of migrants, alongside high housing costs that hurt families who are already in Massachusetts. The details of the state-funded pilot program are still in flux, but the general idea is an agency would work with a family to find housing and then provide one year of case management after that family is placed in housing.
- WATER: New Mexico partners with Google to save water. Officials in New Mexico announced they are teaming up with Google to hunt for leaky water pipes using satellite imagery. The state’s new 50-year water plan notes that some systems in New Mexico are losing anywhere from 40% to 70% of all treated drinking water because of breaks and leaks in old infrastructure. New technology and remote sensing techniques will help the state compile an inventory of water loss across more than 1,000 public water systems this year. Aside from being able to detect leaks in real time, the information will help to prioritize repair and replacement projects, officials said. New Mexico is the first state to partner with Google for such an endeavor, state officials said, noting that the payoff could be significant in terms of curbing losses and saving municipalities and ratepayers money over the long term, the Associated Press reported.
- VOTING: Pennsylvania automatic voter registration boosts sign-ups for both parties. New data from automatic voter registration at Pennsylvania driver’s license centers shows that sign-ups have grown, remain almost evenly divided between the political parties and do not significantly favor one party over another in the presidential battleground state. The latest data, published Wednesday by Pennsylvania’s elections office, tallies just over four months of new voter registrations since Gov. Josh Shapiro announced the change in September to make it easier for people to register and for counties to manage voter rolls. It shows about a 45% increase in sign-ups at driver’s license centers compared with those during a similar period two years ago. It also shows little change in the partisan mix of those registering under the new system, despite accusations by Donald Trump that Democrats would use it to “steal Pennsylvania.”
- CRIMINAL JUSTICE: AG proposes traveling prosecutors to clear case backlog. South Carolina’s top prosecutor wants a team of traveling attorneys and investigators to help end a backlog of criminal cases across the state. At least 11,600 cases statewide involve suspects who were indicted at least three years ago and are still waiting for their day in court. To relieve some of that backlog, Attorney General Alan Wilson is seeking $1.5 million to hire nine attorneys, investigators and paralegals. The request would also cover their travel and living expenses as they worked with solicitor’s offices across the state. The teams would help bring older cases to trial while the local prosecutors handle new cases. A victim’s advocate and a technology expert would complete the traveling teams as needed.
Picture of the Week
A truck hauling zebras and camels for a series of weekend circus performances caught fire last weekend on a northeastern Indiana highway, prompting a police rescue of the animals. A Grant County Sheriff’s deputy and a state trooper helped to save five zebras, four camels and a miniature horse by leading them off the smoked-filled trailer, said Sgt. Steven Glass with Indiana State Police. The truck was bringing the animals from Florida to Fort Wayne for four weekend circus performances when the crew discovered a fire that quickly spread, threatening the animals in its trailer until they were rescued. Both officers were treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation and later released, and none of the animals were injured. (Photo courtesy of the Grant County Sheriff's Office via AP)
What They’re Saying
“I have a lot of cousins and their families that live in New York, and some of them thought [the endorsement] was cooler than being governor.”
—Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen on what his relatives thought of the endorsement from Taylor Swift in the 2018 U.S. Senate race. At the time, the Democrat was locked in an uphill battle against then-Rep. Marsha Blackburn when Swift announced her support for Bredesen in an Instagram post. The endorsement, Bredesen’s campaign recently recounted to Politico, breathed life into his campaign. But in the end, it wasn’t enough to push Bredesen to a victory: He pulled about 44% to Blackburn’s approximate 55%.